How Warner Bros. has sold a story of power, politics and betrayal.
Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King and co-written by him and Will Berson (with the story from Keith and Kennth Lucas), travels back to 1960s Chicago to tell the story of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Specifically, it focuses on Hampton’s betrayal by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). That betrayal by O’Neal comes after he’s picked up by the FBI and told the only way he can stay out of jail is by informing on Hampton and his organization’s activities at a time when the Black Panther movement was viewed by law enforcement as a terrorist organization.
The movie, which also stars Jermaine Fowler, Martin Sheen, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons and others, is hitting both limited theaters and HBO Max this week as part of Warner Bros.’ day-and-date release strategy. With a 98% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and already either having been nominated or won a number of awards, WB’s campaign has focused on the performances as well as the real-life drama that inspired the story.
Last September the first poster (by marketing agency Statement Advertising) came out, showing O’Neal in the foreground with a red-tinged photo of Hampton and the crowds that believed in him in the background. That design, even independent of the copy reading “You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution”, is similar to the look and feel of propaganda posters, with the red usually indicating a socialist or similar message, one that’s appropriate for Hampton’s mission.
The second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in January and pares things down to just Hampton and O’Neal. While it keeps that red shading, it also loses the copy but adds all the festivals the film has appeared at and claim that this is “One of the best films of the year.”
A final poster (by marketing agency GRAVILLIS) came out just last week and takes a different approach but keeps the idea of generally looking like some sort of propaganda poster. This time though it’s a blue and black color scheme and a design that also kind of mimics a paperback book, with the title at the top and the imagery in the bottom two-thirds. This one was designed for artist and former Black Panther member Emory Douglas.
The first trailer (2 million views on YouTube) was released in early August, opening with Hampton introducing himself and then showing how he is ready to lead a revolution. It quickly switches to focus on O’Neal, who is being interrogated by the FBI, who want him to inform on Hampton. Scenes of violent uprising are mixed with shots of Hampton and his organization helping feed and support communities, showing the good and the bad that the FBI was so eager to quash.
The second trailer (6.9 million views on YouTube) came out in January, showing Hampton and the community work he and the Black Panthers are doing. That’s far from the terrorist threat the FBI makes them out to be, something O’Neal comes to realize after he’s already in too deep. There’s an awful lot of powerful emotion here, selling a movie that’s focused on presenting a much more accurate picture of that period than may be taught in many history classes.
Online and Social
You’ll find information on showtimes (where applicable) as well as a synopsis and other very basic information on the film’s website, which uses a variation on the key art at the top.
Advertising and Promotions
As with the rest of the studio’s 2021 slate, it was among the titles named by Warner Bros. as debuting simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.
The movie’s profile was raised significantly when it was added as a late entry to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which served as the film’s premiere.
A featurette released during Sundance in early February went into the real people and stories that influence the movie.
Cutdown versions of the trailer were used as preroll ads on YouTube and elsewhere.
Media and Press
Right about the time the trailer debuted, King was interviewed about the controversial casting of a British actor to play a prominent Black American, something he said he was aware of but had to make the best choice he could regarding. Kaluuya was later interviewed about how the movie follows a path he’s carved out in her career to date along and more.
There was a feature profile covering how long King and others had worked on the project, how there were at times two Hampton-oriented films in development and how a number of studios passed on the film for reasons that seemed based more on “no one wants to see a movie about Black power” than anything else.
Stanfield appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the film, though the conversation of course spilled over into more of his recent and upcoming projects.
H.E.R. performed their song from the soundtrack on “The Late Show.”
WB’s campaign here is very strong, selling a biopic about a public figure that’s too often marginalized in many history books and lessons. Kaluuya and Stanfield are rightly front and center here, but so is King and that’s great to see since, as a filmmaker himself, the opportunity afforded by a higher profile is that he will be able to tell more like this.
The performances by the leads are at the forefront of a marketing push that has a clear and easily recognizable brand identity, one that makes it clear the film does not shy away from addressing sometimes uncomfortable societal issues. It’s not one that will likely drive massive amounts of new subscribers to HBO Max, but it does make the case that it’s a movie that needs to be watched if you can.